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Learning from rejection

Image by flickr user aloofdork

I am a first-class reject.

Really. I’ve been turned down by some genuinely excellent people. A few weeks ago, I got a rejection letter about a job I had applied for a bit back. It was very nice and polite. And I really appreciated it because they let me know they had hired someone else. Many companies don’t do that. So even though I didn’t get the job, I was left feeling kind of warm and fuzzy.

I didn’t actually interview for the job, so I didn’t respond to say thank you (like you should if you get an interview). But if you do interview and get turned down, should that be the end of the post-rejection conversation? Not if you want to turn it into a positive experience, said Liane Gould, Manager for ACS Career Services.

“You can ask the interviewer about how you could have done better,” she said. Specifically, they might give you feedback about your skill set, and how you might become more attractive to a potential employer.

This isn’t going to help too much with that current application, but who knows? Another job might open up soon. Or a similar company might be looking for a similar employee. The point is, you can learn a lot from getting denied.

And let’s face it: all of us will be rejects at one time or another. (I am speaking only of the job market, not your personal life.) In the current market, it’s likely that your “no” pile can easily trip into the double digits, depending on how many jobs you apply for.

I know this from personal experience. In my first post, I alluded to my Summer of No, in which I got rejected from every writing internship I applied for.

I won’t lie–it was painful. There was a particularly cruel week when I got two rejections a day, three days in a row. That left me feeling…well, you can probably imagine. I was pretty low.

Do not let the emotional part of your brain take over. It's instinctive to feel hurt by rejection, but ultimately it will get you nowhere. Image by flickr user KatieL366.

But somewhere in those self-pitying days, my attitude began to turn. Getting another writing internship is pretty important to my future career, yes, but I was still healthy, still happily married, and (for the time being) still able to put food on the table and make my mortgage payments. Besides, am I not a chemistry grad student? I’ve tackled some pretty major setbacks during my time in the lab. And even though it’s sometimes taken me a long time (read: years) to solve some seriously tough problems, I’ve always won. I’ve always gotten stuff to work. So this getting turned down repeatedly stuff? This I could handle, and maybe could even learn from it.

This educational opportunity came during the only phone rejection I got. As the editor told me they had chosen someone else, I slumped like a Jell-O salad left out on a hot day. But then the rational part of my brain took over, and I heard myself asking, “Is there a way that you think I can improve my application?”

I think he was slightly taken aback by the question, but he got over it quick.

When I got off the phone 45 minutes later, I was dazed with the amount of stuff I had learned. I was sad that I hadn’t gotten the internship of course, but I also felt…encouraged. I had certainly gained something. But what I couldn’t figure out was why it took me so long to ask.

From then on, everybody I interviewed with got the same treatment. I even sent emails to editors who had turned me down weeks before. And everyone was happy to talk to me about it. I’ve tried to implement the things I learned, and hopefully it will make me a better candidate for the applications I have currently going.

Liane Gould warns that this type of thing might not work for everybody, though. Some companies might not want to talk about why they didn’t hire you, since it could put them at a liability.  But an alternative time to get advice on how to improve is at the interview itself.

“You can ask if there’s anything on the resume that might be encouraging, or what kinds of things are holding you back from getting the job,” she said. “The interview is the best place to get information on how you stand.”

Gould also suggests making sure you know as much about the company as possible before you even apply. You can do this by requesting an informational interview with the company. Just remember that an informational interview is not the same thing as asking for a job. And that ideally, that should happen before the want ad at a company is even up. You can read more about informational interviews at Careerbuilder.com.

So is rejection a good thing? It can be. Just like how those repeated failures in the lab made you a better chemist, a stint in the loser lounge might ultimately make you a better applicant, if you choose to act on it. No guarantees, as it’s pretty rough out there. But it may give you a slight edge. And right now, that small advantage could be the difference between another rejection and an actual (oh, happy day) job offer.

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Looking for the hidden key word? Here it is: Who’s.

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